When the Lady Cheryl, a 157 tonne trawler ran aground on Corsair Rock at 1am on March 24 it triggered a serious challenge to our marine incident response teams. Plucking a crew of 6 people from a sinking boat in a 6 metre swell in the middle of the night is no walk in the park!
The successful rescue shows we’re blessed with skilful, courageous people equipped to deal with such situations. We’re also lucky that so far most of the 30,000 litres of marine diesel hasn’t escaped and no serious environmental damage has occurred. But for how long?
Eight days after running aground, the Lady Cheryl is anchored near the western end of the Port Phillip Dolphin Sanctuary. Strong tidal currents and ocean swells are gradually causing the boat to break up, increasing the risk that all fuel on board will escape. Slicks place surface breathing animals such as whales, dolphins, seals and penguins at risk as they are less able to avoid them. Exposure to a toxic diesel slick would cause lesions to their skin, airways and eyes and increase risk of infection.
The Department of Transport (the Control Agency for the emergency response to spills of hazardous and noxious substances in state waters) has had divers working daily in difficult local conditions to plug diesel leaks and prepare the vessel for salvage. The ideal outcome would seem to be for the diesel to be pumped to a storage vessel before it escapes. While the divers are no doubt highly skilled, the question is: do they have the equipment for the job?